Trump’s Anti-Muslim Political Strategy

Whenever the president starts losing control politically, he looks to incite rage in his base.

Chris O'Meara / AP

Early on Wednesday morning, Donald Trump retweeted three graphically anti-Muslim videos—one entitled “Islamist mob pushes teenage boy off roof and beats him to death!,” the second entitled “Muslim Destroys a Statue of Virgin Mary!” and the third entitled “Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!”—posted by British First leader Jayda Fransen, a woman convicted last year by a British court of harassing a woman wearing a hijab.

None of this should come as a surprise. Trump has been associating with anti-Muslim bigots, and parroting their arguments, since before he launched his presidential campaign. In May 2015, a month before he entered the race, Trump journeyed to Iowa to speak at a forum hosted by Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy (CSP), a think tank that specializes in in arguing that devout Muslims cannot be loyal Americans because Islamic law, or Sharia, violates the Constitution. During his speech, Trump mentioned that he had been chatting backstage with “some experts,” one of whom was a woman named Ann who was “so good, she was telling things that you wouldn’t even believe.” Two months earlier, Ann Corcoran had published a CSP report that urged Americans to “speak up against the opening of more mosques in your neighborhoods,” to “say no” to requests for “special Halal food section[s],” and to oppose efforts to require “local government to pay for a Muslim cemetery.” Citing Corcoran, Trump fumed that “if you come from Europe, you’re European, you’ve done great in school, you want to come, you want to come to the United States, you can’t get in, but if you’re Muslim, you can get in.” According to the Huffington Post, Trump would go on to cite “research from the Center for Security Policy dozens of times in press releases and speeches during his presidential campaign.”

Then, at a rally in New Hampshire in September, a man told Trump that, “We have a problem in this country; it’s called Muslims,” before asking, “When can we get rid of them?” Trump’s answer: “You know, a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there. We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.” After a large ISIS terrorist attack in Paris in November, Trump told MSNBC he would “strongly consider” closing certain American mosques. A few days later, at a rally in Alabama, Trump claimed to have seen Muslims in Jersey City celebrating the 9/11 attacks—then kept repeating the charge even after it was debunked.

It went on like this throughout the campaign. In December, after the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Trump issued a statement demanding “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” The statement cited a bogus poll, commissioned by—you guessed it—the Center for Security Policy, which allegedly showed that a majority of American Muslims want the choice to be governed by Sharia law.

The following February, Trump twice suggested that President Obama preferred Islam to Christianity. He urged American troops to emulate General John Pershing, who—Trump falsely claimed—murdered Muslim Filipino prisoners of war with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood. Trump rounded out the month by holding a “national-security briefing” at Mar a Lago with Brigitte Gabriel, who has declared that “a practicing Muslim who believes the word of the Koran to be the word of Allah, who abides by Islam, who goes to mosque and prays every Friday, who prays five times a day—this practicing Muslim, who believes in the teachings of the Koran, cannot be a loyal citizen to the United States of America.” Gabriel’s organization, ACT for America, protests the sale of halal food and scours textbooks in an effort to eliminate references that equate Islam with Judaism and Christianity.

In March, Trump told CNN that “I think Islam hates us.” In June, he said “there’s no real assimilation” by even “second- and third-generation” Muslim Americans.

Then, last fall, Trump won the presidency, and groups like ACT and the Center for Security Policy gained access to the White House. As his first national-security adviser, Trump chose Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who sits on ACT for America’s board and who, at an ACT event in August 2016, suggested that Islam should not be able to “protect itself behind what we call freedom of religion” because “I don’t see Islam as a religion. I see it as a political ideology.” As his CIA Director, Trump appointed Mike Pompeo, who in 2016 won ACT’s National Security Eagle Award. For his attorney general, he named Jeff Sessions, who in 2015 won the CSP’s Keeper of the Flame Award. And Trump named as his chief strategist Steve Bannon, who has said Frank Gaffney is doing “God’s work” and in 2015 declared that any mosque that preaches “sedition” should “be shut.”

Given this history, there’s nothing surprising about Trump disseminating the works of Jayda Fransen. The interesting question is why he did it now. The simplest answer is that fear and hatred of Muslims boosts Trump politically. As Nate Silver has noted, Trump was losing ground to Ben Carson in the two months before November 2015, when the attacks in San Bernardino and Paris boosted fears of terrorism to levels unseen since the aftermath of 9/11. Trump responded to those attacks with a flurry of Islamophobia: musing about closing mosques and creating databases of American Muslims, insisting that New Jersey Muslims cheered 9/11, and proposing a Muslim ban, which was popular among Republican primary voters. By mid-December, Silver observed, Trump’s support in’s “high-sensitivity polling average” had risen eight points. Neither Carson nor any other GOP contender seriously threatened his lead in the national polls again.

Now Trump’s approval rating is stuck below 40 percent. ISIS is losing ground in Iraq and Syria, and thus receding somewhat as a focus of Washington debate. Fewer Americans cite terrorism and immigration—which for Trump supporters are inextricably linked—as their top concern compared with earlier periods this year. So it makes political sense for Trump to take a few minutes in the early morning to stoke rage against the people who during the campaign he repeatedly called “animals.” His decision to retweet Fransen’s videos wasn’t a gaffe. It’s a core part of his strategy for remaining president. And the weaker he grows politically, the more extreme his incitements to anti-Muslim violence will become.